Current Winners – American Legal History

The winner of the 2016 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal History/Biography is Risa Goluboff for Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (Oxford University Press).

The extremely vague vagrancy laws allowed police to arrest somebody for such things as aimless wandering, seeming out of place in a setting, or being without money or employment to provide their support. Police loved these laws since it gave them almost unlimited discretion to lock persons up for such short sentences, 15-30 days usually, that they were almost never appealed. This, the police thought, prevented crimes that these unseemly persons might otherwise have committed. In fact, this wide discretion fostered grave abuse of law enforcement’s powers.

Before 1850 the vagrancy laws had been used sporadically, usually against undesirables, “tramps,” and those who refused to work during periods of labor shortage. During the 1950s and 1960s, the primary period reviewed by this book, the use of vagrancy laws was expanded and used to arrest homosexuals, civil rights activists, interracial couples, beatniks, hippies, and opponents to the Vietnam War.

Judicial pondering about the constitutionality of these laws in the 1960s ultimately led to the Papachristou v. Jacksonville decision in 1972. In that case the United States Supreme Court held that vagrancy laws as traditionally understood were unconstitutional for their vagueness and lack of any specific conduct declared wrongful.   This excellent book is well-written and clearly accessible to the general educated reader. In addition the author has provided an abundance of historical and cultural context for the 1960s, so the reader is able to understand the operation of the vagrancy laws and their destruction as an integral part of the times. –DJL, Sr.

Two books won Finalist status for the 2016 David J. Langum, Sr. Prize in American Legal history: Ballot Battles: The History of Disputed Elections in the United States, by Edward B. Foley (Oxford University Press) and The Great Yazoo Lands Sale: The Case of Fletcher v. Peck, by Charles F. Hobson (University Press of Kansas).


In Ballot Battles, Foley analyzes the details of American elections, state and federal, in which the vote was contested, beginning with the 1781 dispute over the votes cast in an election for a seat on the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania and ending with a 2008 disputed senatorial contest in Minnesota. Appropriately, he spends more time on the major contests, Hayes v. Tilden in 1876 and Bush v. Gore in 2000, but not to the neglect of lesser

The book focuses on irregularities with vote casting or counting, and therefore only briefly discusses the few election disputes that arose out of the structure of the electoral process, as in the elections of 1800 (tied electoral college vote caused by original structure of Electoral College before 12th amendment) and 1824 (no candidate received a majority of the electors, and election went to the House of Representatives). However, there are an abundance of very close elections that generated disputes over the validity of votes cast or their counting.

Foley attributes the disputes surrounding extremely close elections to a flaw in the original design of our constitutional order: the failure of the founders to provide guidance over the disposition of these disputes. He includes a brief discussion of proposed reforms. – DJL, Sr.

In The Great Yazoo Lands Sale, Professor Hobson vividly portrays the fascinating cauldron of legal, social, economic, political, and ethnic forces and colorful personalities that generated the Supreme Court’s decision in Fletcher v. Peck, which nullified the Georgia legislature’s repudiation of scandal-ridden sales of Indian lands to speculators. Hobson demonstrates the importance of the case in protecting vested property interests and establishing the Court’s hugely important role in reviewing the constitutionality of state legislation. – WGR

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